tv Adam Serwer The Cruelty Is the Point - The Past Present and Future of... CSPAN August 14, 2021 4:00pm-5:01pm EDT
it's a great way to stay in connection with all of you and keep the tethered to our audience. we have a lot of people watching maybe even outside the country. thank you for joining us. if you'd like to know more about anything coming up we will keep you in this virtual thing for a little while but we are slowly transitioning to reel in person human beings later this month. you can see it on our web site. one thing of note if you are in our area next week we are going to do in person -- at all souls church. i'm really excited for tonight's
event and also we have great writers in conversation. our moderator i first got to meet virtually last fall when we did it again for a wonderful novel. if you haven't read it i would encourage it to do so and that was the conversation we had with david linde and half a really wonderful event. i got to meet him virtually and four jefferson joined us as well in person. so that if that would not have happened without it.
our guest of honor who has just dropped on "the new york times" bestseller list i believe today longtime writer for the atlantic and creator of an article that i think will go down as one of the signature pieces. it will go down much like it's the economy stupid and follow the history of political discourse. it's the piece that adam wrote for the atlantic and going deeper into what he has to say about this strange air that we are living in. adam will be in conversation for 40 or 45 minutes and i would encourage you to all ask questions of the q&a and at the end as well. if you need more copies of this book and thank you all for buying a copy of the book.
if you need some more for your friends and family you can get a bunch of those in the chat. thank you all for watching and i will turn it over to you to begin the conversation. >> thank you guys for having me back. i'm a little bit more comfortable as a moderator. it is my astute and complete and i don't have enough adjectives to describe it but i guess all just say adam is a good friend of mine and a writer that i admire. now on "new york times" bestseller. congratulations. i want to divide this
conversation to two parts. i want to talk about the invocations of adam's book because i think there are many and i think they are profound and things that we don't usually like to think about. and then i want to talk about atom as a writer because sometimes people see something like a phrase in that phrase went everywhere. but what people don't realize is when adam came up with that he was doing the essential job as a writer which is to distill and clarify. folks see something happening around the world they aren't quite sure how to give it language and in those short words adam gave us language for what we were actually seeing.
so adamant i could i'd just like to start reading a short excerpt from this book. cruelty is the point. it's not just that the perpetrators are cruel to enjoy it is that they enjoy with one another. they say the suffering of others isn't it he says that bring them together into trump. some are in the wide spectrum between adolescence and this smiling white men and the lynching photographs of the trump supporter's who rejoice in the anguish of those do they see is unlike them. the sheer cruelty in answer to the atomization of -- it is that cruelty that binds most trump's and share scorn for those that they hate, immigrants, black voters treasonous white men who
empathize with any of those. the presence ability to execute that cruelty to word and deed makes them feel good. it makes them feel proud. it makes them feel happy. it makes them feel united. as long as it makes them feel that way they will get away with anything no matter what it costs. so i think those words stinging and clarifying as cold as they are offered challenge to i would say contemporary liberal discourse and maybe even broader than that about what happens with policy and i think there's a line running through this book that talks about the traditional notion and we saw this and then i'm going to shut up and ask questions but i think there is some comfort in the idea that history could reward people if they could make the government
quote unquote function in their daily lives. voters would see that and that would replace feelings of bigotry and sexism etc.. what you are arguing in this book and really in your work and in that centerpiece, that's not actually correct. they enjoy the cruelty. the cruelty is not a byproduct, it's the point. obviously that kind of breaks existing political notions of how you address it. adam i wonder what we do if a portion portion of the electorate is not there for the social program and forgo the social program if it meant somebody else would be punished where cruelty is an ideal and a flag they unite around. what if someone who wishes to see a democracy that responds to a broad electorate supposed to do? how do you force the country
together? >> thank you for that kind introduction. i think what i'm talking about since the founding of the country of the country where they say all are created equal and there are tremendous amount of people from the country with that ideal. it doesn't apply to women or men at the time. so to justify that you have to have a reason for why these last things that you say are the right of all humanity why a certain segment of humanity is not entitled to them. and this is a battle that we need to fight -- have been fighting as an country since the beginning.
the fodder during reconstruction and during the civil rights movement and every year in between. and if they give you understand that america's fragile experiment with democracy only really started in 1965 and then it becomes much more understandable that it is as vulnerable as it is. it's this kind of ideology which after all long predates trump. basically what we have is a situation where the structure of our system allows the party to hold power without winning the majority of the vote. it's the ideal so the party that represents that group it's even more urgent to persuade them that they are on the verge of --
you can see this with donald trump and his rhetoric saying i'm the one that's going to protect you from everything. i'm going to protect you from what liberals are going to do when they get power which is take everything away from you that matters. that's how you end up justifying things like disenfranchising rival constituencies and by trying to violently overthrow an election at all ties to this idea that there is a legitimate group and the group in america that has the legitimate rights and the permanent political and cultural hegemony of the united states in anything that threatens that is a threat to the country as it is meant to be. it's as old as the country itself but he was the talented practitioner of that kind of politics because he watches "fox news" every day and repeated what he saw on "fox news" that
to these audiences bus to validating the things that they had come to believe were responsible for all of the problems in their life. so simply to say that the economic struggle creates racism is wrong because the struggle, you don't simply come to the conclusion, it's not like we are robots don't type in a program and you have a reaction. what happens is your misfortune and your problems are mediated through the values that you have in which you have come to believe about the way that the world works. what's interesting is trumpism never commanded a majority. again it's reliant on the majority area and levers of american democracy and that offers a kind of solution.
you have a system which was designed to be unfair in so many ways to be more fair. you have to make structural alterations to that system because the only way that parties truly respond, the only way the changes by responding to differences in their political power and we know this because if you look at the democratic party which is one of the most hyper-- and american life and in 1932 in the beginning of 1932 in a lack voters in the north began to become part of the new deal that coalition the labor union black voters they change the course of this party which up until then was the party of racial apartheid in the south and that is german display powerful and it tells you how you ultimately defeat it.
you have to make it like -- and as long as they can when power which they are doing right now they are going to do it. as long as they can alter the rules to diminish the influence of voters that they consider illegitimate americans they will continue to pursue that path. on the one hand it's -- and on the other hand this is probably the first time in american history that the coalition that opposes that ideology is as big as it is. it wasn't this big. wasn't this big in 1968. in the midst of the backlash of the cell rights movement won that election and subsequently won re-election bid that was a genuine majority you know what i mean? richard nixon was representing and i'd dearly geographically
distributed america. most americans -- and trump rally never had most americans on the side so i think in some ways that's the kind of thing that is sort of hopeful and on the other hand is long as the system enhances the political influence of the most conservative elements of the electorate there is no way for -- for what's going on right now. >> it's like ugoda football game you spot the other team. >> that's right. the fact that their power is artificially enhanced by the power of our system for some reason they don't process that as because of this ideology where they consider themselves to be the only legitimate party,
they don't see that as an advantage or the unearned advantage that it is. they in fact see the other side as trump taking advantage of saying that they are not entitled which really their power is enhanced and a democratic system. >> i just want to play this out. what you seem to be pointing to is the identity of democratic reforms looking at how the senate is apportioned all the things that you said our basically an advantage. the audience for this kind of cruelty. you have the political situation nowhere the democratic party is
diversity and that's a good thing. part of that ever city is -- and joe manchin so what is the prognosis and if you have a party that has an unearned advantage from cruelty and yet another party that can't really unite in opposition or in defense of democracy thus far at least where does that leave you long-term to say nothing of the advantage also. >> the democratic party represents the majority but it does not have a unity of purpose that comes with being a smaller smaller party and the republican party does not represent a majority but because of its homogeneity religion -- for
religious ideology it has a unity of purpose that the democratic party doesn't have. i think, i don't know really what the answer is with joe manchin and christensen a -- kristin sinema is. during reconstruction christians were not ardent believers in racial equality. there were a couple people who were. thaddeus stevens paul sumpter but they would say political rights does not mean you have to let the black person marry your daughter. we are talking about that. we are talking about social equality but they came to understand and people think of 14th and the 15th amendment says or most of us do anyway as these great accomplishments but they were post-partisan. the republican party had
ideological interests in defending the black vote. the republican party was not viable in the south without the black vote. and the democratic party is in a similar position today to the extent that this is one of the reasons why there partisan voting protections is sort of ridiculous because that's how we got the 14th and 15th amendment and if you were willing to give veto power to accord that is willing to write the 15th amendment out of existence when it comes to the rights of black voters and the party that simply sees its interests continuing to restrict the elect are at so that it does not have to be responsive to a more diverse group of voters you know at some point you have to decide, you have to decide where
the decorum of the senate is more important than rights. the democrats can't do that. i don't know republican voting restrictions will six seed in the electorate. that's certainly what they are trying to do but i don't know if that will actually work. what i will say is that if it does work it's less likely that the republican party democrats will have to move considerably to the right to continue in artificially -- electorate that does not represent the majority of the country. when this happened in the 1870s it had tremendous cost for lack people in particular because the whole point of a democracy is that politicians
are responsible to the people and when you can take a certain group of people and make it so you no longer have to be responsible to be disenfranchised that opens them up to being their rights in not being respected. if we get to that point in these restrictions and again i'm not sure that they are going to work, that's a very dangerous thing full of -- for the vulnerable constituents on which the democratic party relies on its power and these constituencies are reliant on the democratic party to defend their rights. i don't want to make any predictions but i just don't know what's going to happen but i do think it's a very dangerous place to be. >> adam is not just -- and early
on when president trump was running you were out in the field. one of the things i hope to discuss here is you talk about again in and the centerpiece i say it's this idea that we underestimate it. it's not something we talk about it back and watch and analyze why a certain candidate did well. then the pundits say well was because ted cruz was particularly cruel today. so it's not a way that we like to think about ourselves but i wonder whether you yourself have thought much about what the appeal actually is and not just among -- but if you look at you can see cruelty and to some
extent you can see the cruelty appeal to people and i wonder if you could talk about the target of the message. >> i think it makes them feel as though they belonged and it makes them feel powerful and it makes them feel above people who are being acted upon. it's a depoliticized version of this. if he ever been a child you have seen the cool kids try to make fun of the nerdy kids and maybe you join in because you want to be part of the cool kids group or maybe you are one of the rare few who stick up for the kid who's getting picked on or maybe you stay silent because you don't want to be the next target. and the kids -- the cool kids
are teasing the nerdy kids have formed a community through that act of they are doing something that they are not supposed to be doing and they'll bonded with each other over their shared cruelty towards this person on the outside. what it does it creates an up-and-down justifies the behavior. all human beings are capable of this kind of cruelty. i tried emphasize this is not something that is just about conservatives or the republican party. i can remember when i was sitting in my house in texas during the freeze going through social media and i am scrolling and i see tweets from people that's what you get for voting for abbott. for me, that kind of cruelty, the distinction between that
which you see at the trump level is that the democratic party by virtue of its diversity does not behave that way towards the opposition so in california was having rolling blackouts ted cruz and is on twitter talking about california is a failed state. when texas was having its lack outs the worst in 10 years the government -- the governor of california will was like best wishes to texas and we will help houbara campers not because democrats are more virtuous is because when you are reliant on a diverse coalition you will try to win people over and we can look at that through history and we can see where the democratic party was in that position and was behaving with the rituals of cruelty to create hard links between their community and the one that they wanted to destroy
now we see the republican party is in a similar position and is behaving with that kind of contempt towards human beings are outside of its coalition. this is an essential part of human nature and the only way to prevent it from dominating politics is to have a system that diminishes the reward for engaging in it. >> i thought of cat calling as an example where men forge community with dominance. >> it's a great example. >> they are almost talking to each other. >> they don't think that one is going to respond. they have power over her and showing their boys that they are the kind of person who can do this. that's a great example. >> why do you think it is --
trump did not all of a sudden become racist. it's marked his career since his entrance into the public from being sued for housing discrimination by the justice department up to calling for the death penalty for the central park five and there've been books written about him etc.. this is not new. why do you think it was and it got to a point where people called trump races etc. but my point is why do you think we are so resistant to speak to the appeal of that and to speak of that actual political position? >> why people are the
demographic majority and they tend to be better off than other democrats so as consumers they have a lot of power and if you are a mainstream newspaper or news channel you don't want to alienate a section of your audience and tens of millions of people voted for them. so if that's the case you really don't want to alienate these people. if you are democrat you might need someone to vote for you and if you are "the new york times" you are to have a bunch of liberal readers. you want to get these people who did not currently support you and if you suggest that racism has something to do with it you are putting yourself in a position to lose their money trusts their viewership in their readership and i believe at
first that it does of this incentive it was going to be very hard for people to look at it and i think what happened is all trump was so blonde and so repetitive about what he believed and why he believed it and why he did the things he did that instead of eventually people said it is what it was. cory booker is going to come in and threaten the housewives, on the one hand it's so absurd that it lends itself to someone being like hey it's so overt. and i think what's interesting is i think there's disagreement
about what donald trump thinks and what he does. there's not a lot of disagreement between us about whether or not his audience enjoys cruelty towards individuals and whether or not race is a part of his pitch to his voters and after he called colin kaepernick a -- he said my people love this stuff. the disagreement i think really is between, not between me and donald trump or donald trump and most of his left-wing critics, it is between those critics and the industry of people in between donald trump who like donald trump and want to support him and want to tell themselves that the things we are describing are not what they
philosophy about how to write. there's an language for instance of active nesn there is a language someone like you that rates. that is very different. i always liked this portion of the conversation it is never the case that's in the audience. would you talk a little bit about your philosophy what you are trying to do and how you do it a little bit? i've said the past years in particular there's a book called black reconstruction america. and in it he says at the time he is writing the main stream historical consensus is reconstruction was a tragic, failed thing. it was corrupt. it was quote negro tierney. it was a mistake to
enfranchise black men. therefore the jim crow system is an immoral justified to that foolish experiment. and he writes in his book he's like this book is for people who think black people are people. they are just as capable, talented and flawed as other human beings. and if you do not believe this you will not be able to read and understand this book. and i am not even trying to convince you if you are that person. what i am trying to do is write the truth. and for me on the role is to persuade people who do not already agree with us to agree with this. in outlook, it would be nice if that happened. i don't think that is my job. i think fundamentally it my job is similar to objective journalist in the sense that
my job is to write what is happening the best i can so that the audience, the public can make a decision on whatever information they get from me that they feel like is useful for the filling of my job set down a record of events that is as most accurate as i can get it. not to plant my argument in a way that i think will portray, persuade trump supporters to see it my way. i think if you do that you ultimately end up risking that you will be dishonest in your argument because you want to be persuasive. there is a possibility your argument becomes corrupted by your desire to appeal to the hypothetical person who does not already agree with you. and whether you agree with me or not, when i'm simply trying to do is describe the events as accurately as possible.
and you know, honestly not everybody feels that way. i feel that it's important to approach the job that way because it helps me and gives me a clarity for focusing on what i went to say. >> i'm going to use that and i'm going to back up a little bit. so where there are a lot of books in your household? >> yes, a lot of books a lot of books. my father worked for the state department my mother worked for the smithsonian. [inaudible] they valued that kind of learning and knowledge and i can't remember my parents just given me children's biographies of malcolm x and mohamed ali when i was like six years old.
and it's interesting because they did not necessarily tell me what to think about those things that they were clearly trying to shape my understanding of the world. and so yes i grew up in a house with a lot of books. and i was expected to read a lot of books as a child. >> host: did you enjoy at the time? >> you know i did. but i much preferred comic books other than the books my parents wanted me too read. [laughter] i was a tremendous reader of comic books more than anything else to the point that if my parents wanted to punish me they would come into my room and take all of the comic books in my room and shove them into a box and take them out and set you get these back when you like to finish her homework. [laughter] we went wind as the light switch come on, was the first moment you are like i think i
can do this if you go from reader to writer? what is the earliest moment you can remember? >> i started off writing bad poetry on buses in washington d.c. and i went to vassar college i majored in english was fortunate enough to have a great novelist and memoirist as a teacher. he was a very important force in my life in terms of making me think about how to be a writer. >> did he tell you you could do it? was he the first person to say you can actually do this? >> he was encouraging, he was respectful of whatever it is you are trying to do with
writing. he would ask questions that were meant to guide you in that direction, he did not give you answers. because i think his philosophy, and hope i'm not misstating but his philosophy was he wanted to guide you towards the writer you wanted to be not the writer that he might think you should be. and originally, i actually wanted to make documentaries. that is what i went to journalism school for. but i was also blogging on the side, this is dating myself. it was 2007 -- 2008 which was a late blog era in the amateur sense. that's actually how we met. i had been a reader of yours and noticed you had a blog. you're just trying your hand at blogging. that is sort of how we originally met was on the
internet. >> they are, they are pretty. >> they can be. they can be. i was blogging it wasn't heavily trafficked or anything. the american prospect asked me too get a blog for them as i was graduating journalism school. i cannot get any jobs in documentary. those jobs are in public television with certain companies are not a lot of them there hard to get. the american prospect still retain my own political voice. that's what i feel so precious about magazines in general. they help you see with your eye. another medium to do this they
were a wonderful ground for the new york city paper and encourage you to report and be open about your personal ideological perspectives where it to me that was the kind of journalism that really appealed to me. and so i was fortunate to start off with the prospect and was fortunate to come into a magazine the thought itself of his intellectual projects. and that was a crooked path. it was not a very straight silica woke up when they said i wanted to be a journalist i work for the school paper.
it was accidentally tumbled into it and it turned out to be a rewarding career for me. i am fortunate in that way. especially concerning the state of the industry there are not as many jobs as i used to be who are just as talented as i am just in a different region. i feel very grateful where i am. >> one of the things i think about when i read your writing i feel like i'm going to use a word that it's a bad rap it's very, very important. i can feel the emotion. in a book like this i can feel the anger i can feel you seething. it is controlled like a bubbling and a pot race not overflowing is not ruining
everything. bubbling at the appropriate level. what that does, i teach a writing class and i say contrary to what you think you actually need heart. you have to put your heart into something. doesn't mean has to be a first-person piece but there has to be a transference the energy you feel in yourself has to be conducted through your fingers into the keyboard. i wonder what your rituals are. do you have to calm down? obviously have conversations online about the sort of thing. what to write when you're feeling it or what do you do? >> -exercise to be very focusing, i run a lot. i listen to music. these days i mostly listen to wordless music. i haven't jazz playlists that i run to it helps me focus.
have a very weird playlist i listen to that's really just for me songs that you would not expect to hear beats two. i find it is best to write in the morning for me. i think at some point in college i could write it anytime of the day, i could sleep and eat at any time of the day. but the older i get it's harder for me. i find a lot of comfort in keeping my rituals predictable and having specific times of the day where do specific things. but the number one thing i always have to do is i have to run. it's the adrenaline from
running greases the wheels in your brain and really get you thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it. >> lifted you before and after. >> before. >> okay obvious that could be here all day but you have to go ahead. >> we do have quite a few questions for our audience. we will get to a few of those. i think some are directed at both of our guests tonight. you can take this whoever would like to jump on that question. i'd like to be of the question for whatever viewers named paul apropos with trump announcing lawsuits against the social media companies today. how can social media be held accountable for its collective role in the promotion of cruelty? >> i don't know the answer to that question. i would say there's something
to the premise. i think social media thrives on conflict. an incentivized particular kind of concept between people where we are has on charitable as possible to each other and contesting argument. i don't know what the solution to that is. we have a first amendment. you cannot force private companies to use algorithms that reward conflict less. i suppose the only way to do that is simply to leave the platforms in the first place. which a decision that i respect and admire. i think to the extent we have the power to change that is by
platforms as consumers that's not what we want. >> one of our viewers, laura says do you have any recommendations for ways to engage with trump supporters to hold a mirror to their actions so they can accurately see the reflection? >> i don't think there is a special way, trump supporters are people. they are people you disagree with. there's no magic way to disagree with. he approach and like you would approach anyone else but you disagree with and tell them why to the extent that is even the extent it is appropriate to do that. i'm not recommending anyone or run and start arguments with strangers.
unfortunately in the united states is a very dangerous activity. it's like anything else. to some extent disagreement as part of a democracy. the purpose of democracy is to resolve conflict without bloodshed. it is not to have no conflict at all. we're always going to political disagreements. they're always going to be people with conservative views on religion, economics, and i think one thing we should do in general is understand we are never going to live in a world without disagreement. we actually would not want too. my objection and tropism is not that they disagree. it's their disagreements have led them to a place where they are attempting to change the political system.
to disagree with them politically by severing them from the franchise we are always going to have disagreement can't do that if you don't respect it matthew is asking think it applies to both of you. it feels like a many individuals with comic book reading backgrounds of those speaking and writing with clarity in the trump area where they help the moral understanding? lex oh man this is going to get a little weird. my favorite comic book character superman. i love superman to death.
>> so much that's interesting about a character who is as a powerful as superman is who still decides consciously to use his power and a way to help people. superman is so baffling to people you see them trying to reimagine superman as the evil dictator. they assume someone with that kind of power would be paired with interesting about superman is why he did not take those positions. i think just as an artifact of jewish american culture he is fascinating. assimilating into american life through a farm in kansas but still remaining apart from american society. i think comic books are
folktales. obviously we have american folktales i think there is a shared moral universe there that is precious. obviously i can understand why some people are tired of being saturated by commercial ubiquity. but, i found comics to be often a wonderful way to explore moral complexities even in the ability we have not be good at all.
>> people don't know we spend the last ten minutes time but the snyder concept. i think it's contractually prohibited. [laughter] you to get them in trouble. the structural change the system as it is i understand i asked this question i am not the person to ask. this is the kind of question what can the democrats do? i am not a political strategist i am not a detective is. i do not know the steps to creating a better more just world. i can describe the world we are in and why we are in its.
that's what i feel like my role is. but in terms of changing the world for the better there's a lot of wonderful, brilliant people who are working on that. and it was a difficult question too. >> around the country as a federal holiday which is on many sites western juneteenth here in tulsa and weeks after george floyd's and murder trump decided to host his first rally on juneteenth which is in and of itself before they changed it was a most cruel act. >> sat the one herman came came to? >> yes he died right after
that that moment of course they change it to the day after words. no one had heard about juneteenth and all the sev happened after that. that moment, cheating that day was a very overt act to me of cruelty and using the strategy you talk about. then of course one year later we are in a very different place for the celebration was very much a different thing. i ask you this, do you feel in that one year time you see a lot of progression? is this an anomaly, do if like things are getting better quickly? also at that moment specifically do you see that as the larger somewhat subtle way of doing cruel acts on a
subversive level it's a big question. >> i just want to shout out the remaining survivor of the tulsa massacre who just testified before congress is very depressing they still have their witness to those events to reliant and to learn from. i think trump excelled at provocation. not simply as an act of cruelty but making people mad. i think that ability to make people mad was a source of pleasure for many of his supporters. especially if he felt like the provocation, even if the provocation was deliberate the felt the reaction was unjustified or exaggerated, the more they enjoyed it.
i think whether or not it was cruel, whether or not trump even understood what he was doing, to be honest in that particular instance i am not sure he understood the significance of juneteenth the significant of having a rally at that time. he enjoyed provoking people. it's part of how he monopolizes the economy of attention that is so precious in politics. that was an example of it he will continue to use that scale to keep himself a relevant whether or not he pursues the presidency again. >> the book at the cruelty all of you have a copy of it. he dived into it already is going to one of the most important books of the year in a conversation that you want to be a part of.
i hope you all will spend some time reading that in the coming days. i want to say a big thank you and congratulations your new gig at howard's university. very excited to hear about that. of course our special guest "new york times" bestseller much-deserved and i wish you well and will talk to down the road, thank you gentlemen for your time. >> thanks for having us words tb
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